Joe Hovel – A Northwoods Conservationist

By Kim Swisher, Publisher

Long-time residents of the Northwoods may recognize the name Joe Hovel. He has inspired many including me. My team at Kim Swisher Communications, LLC., and I began working with Joe in 2020 when he created the Northwoods Forest Conservation Handbook series.

Karla Rosenberg, our graphic artist, did the layout, and the team and I proofed the copy. As I read each Handbook, I began to gain understanding of the importance of land conservation – especially here in the Northwoods.

The latest project Joe brought to us was his memoir From Barbells to Spruce Grouse – a 50-Year Journey of Land Conservation.

The title itself was intriguing, and, after reading the book, I realized that Joe shared not only his personal journey to becoming a conservationist, but he shared his experiences and feelings as he lived through conserving public access to several waterways and forests. He shared his accomplishments, and what he considered losses. A major accomplishment was Joe’s work on the Upper Wisconsin River Legacy Forest Project completed in Vilas County, which was closed to the public for 25 years before 2015.

He writes as he speaks – in plain talk that leaves no room for misinterpretation. He explains things in an understandable way. I soon realized I was reading both a history and a playbook to preserve the very things that brought me to the Northwoods – our woods, waters and wildlife.

Paul Hetzler, author and former Cornell University natural resource educator, wrote in his forward in Joe’s memoir, “The main intent of this book is to show that good-hearted people, no matter how timid or wet behind the ears, can and do make the world a better place when they dare to speak out against injustice, especially if they are open to collaborating with like-minded folk.”

He continued, “The stories that follow are chronicles of joy, outrage, occasional despair, hard work, eventual triumphs and deep friendships on the road to land conservations. If a naïve former ‘powerlifter’ like Joe with no credentials other than a high-school education, a good heart and a strong work ethic can make a difference, so can you. While Joe wouldn’t put it in these words, he would agree that the Universe keenly awaits the rare sound of your particular voice, the singular quality of your light, or maybe the unique style of your controversial protest sign. We all have a part to play, and it’s never too late to start.”

The memoir has a curious title, and Joe explains that in his preface, writing, “A barbell represents deliberate and intense efforts, and accomplishments gained only through hard work. A Spruce Grouse represents the non-human species which are threatened by anthropogenic disruption of the landscape. Both symbols are literal parts of this story, with a very long path in between.”

Joe also explains what motivated him to write his memoir. “Conserving some-several thousand acres of wildland was a real accomplishment; I’m deeply humbled and grateful for having been instrumental in that. This book gives an honest account of how it developed, from the modest 40-acre parcel to tracts of 1,000 acres and more. Some victories came with public support and accolades, while others were steep uphill battles with setbacks and even a threat here and there. And of course, there were a few losses. But the land I worked to protect is a legacy, one I’m proud to pass on to the coming generation.

Your battles may be about land conservation, or they might involve other worthy causes. Success is attainable, and the results can be surprisingly important. Don’t be afraid to step up. The future depends on you. As the Dalai Lama said, ‘If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.’”

When I finished reading the book, I realized how much Joe has truly accomplished, and the legacy he has created now and for future generations.

Joe and his family


To obtain your copy of this illuminating, entertaining and educational memoir, visit


The Northwoods News team met with Joe and filmed our conversation. He exemplifies a Northwoods Luminary, and we invite you to view our talk with Joe. We will include the link to the Luminary video as soon as it’s ready.